The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Thursday, December 03, 2009

A Nature Note Farewell
by Ro Wauer

For all my life I have been writing about nature. As a very young boy I wrote about my surroundings: tropical fish, grasshoppers, lizards, robins, the changing leaves. I continued writing essays about the natural world throughout my college years. And during my 32-year career with the National Park Service, nature guides and articles were a significant part of my work. Then with retirement in 1989, and moving to Victoria, I began a series of weekly Nature Notes in the Advocate. My belief had long been to “Do more than exist – live; Do more than touch – feel; Do more than look – observe; Do more than listen – understand; Do more than talk – say something!” (John Harsen Rhoades)

And so my Nature Notes included every imaginable topic within my understanding, with the help of my very complete nature library. During those twenty-plus years our Mission Oaks yard provided the principal source of topics. I began by introducing plants to attract hummingbirds; I had been an avid birder for almost half a century. But I soon discovered that the flowering plants were attracting more butterflies than birds. Although I already knew all the birds, my new joy was learning butterflies. And like all field naturalists, I kept records of all the species seen in my yard. Since my first yard bird – a cardinal in June 1989 – to the present (Nov. 2009) I recorded a grand total of 182 species. My butterfly list includes 130 species. Also, my yard herp (reptiles and amphibians) list includes 33 species, and my mammal list a paltry nine species.

In reviewing the birds, butterflies, herps, and mammals that I so enjoyed, they include a number of specialties. Most memorable birds included a number of colorful warblers –blackpoll, Blackburnian, prairie and cerulean – buff-bellied hummingbirds became a full-time resident, an eastern screech-owl raised a family, green jays were sporadic visitors, and a visiting zone-tailed hawk, swallow-tailed kite, pileolated woodpecker, and clay-colored robin were also memorable. Bathing red-shouldered hawks and barred owls were also special.

A few of the most memorable butterflies included yellow and white angled-sulphurs, white-M and striped hairstreaks, red-bordered metalmark, an amazing number of julias, an out of range gray cracker that came to sip on homemade brew, zilpa and brown longtails, Erickson’s white-skipper, and hammock’s skipper. Other invertebrates of note included a variety of dragonflies and damselflies, praying mantises, doodlebugs, leafcutter ants, and garden spiders that weaved amazing webs.

Of the few mammals found in our yard, most memorable were the lone ringtail and the white-tailed deer mother and fawn. We believe that the fawn was actually born in our yard; it was too weak to stand when we first discovered it. But it was soon able to walk away, only to lie down again soon afterwards. Betty and I were able to photograph the newly born fawn and the doe several times when they visited our yard, including the last time when the fawn had lost almost all its spots and had developed tiny knobs where its antlers would soon grow. Our very own Bambi!

Over the years we have received calls from numerous readers to ask about or to inform us about various birds and butterflies seen in their yard. The calls have added immeasurably to the fun of writing Nature Notes on our South Texas wildlife. Purple martins, cardinals, woodcocks, caracaras, green jays, painted buntings, Eurasian collared-doves, and trumpeter swans were some of the subjects of those calls. Butterfly calls of special interest included zebras, a banded orange heliconian, white peacocks, and tawny emperors.

Betty, my wife who has shared our yard and answered so many of your calls, joins me in wishing you all a fond farewell! We are leaving Victoria to move to Bryan. We will be closer to our kids and will be down-sizing from a large house and very large yard. We do plan to install a butterfly garden by spring, and we look forward to exploring new country and finding lesser known places for birds and butterflies.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Welcome Whoopers Back
by Ro Wauer

Yes, it is again the time of year that those very special winter Texans – whooping cranes - are returning to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and environs. A recent article in the Audubon Outdoor Club Newsletter (Kathy Griffith, editor) of Corpus Christi reminded me of this marvelous event. Kathy’s article also provided good up-to-date information on the bird’s status. Much of the material below is taken from her “Whooping Crane Report.”

Last winter has hard on our whoopers! Drought, decreased inflows into the Gulf from the Guadalupe River, and withdrawals of water for human uses reduced bay productivity that negatively impacted blue crabs, the whooper’s principal food supply. Those impacts, along with housing developments next to marshes, whooper’s foraging sites, add to the local impacts. And “in the migration corridor, the cranes are facing a proliferation of wind farms and associated power lines. Collisions with power lines is the number one cause of mortality for fledged whooping cranes, and the miles of lines continue to grow substantially.” There is good reason why whoopers are endangered.

Only 247 of our South Texas whoopers made it through the 2008-2009 winter to migrate northward to their breeding grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Those birds found adequate nesting conditions, but only 22 chicks fledged from 62 nests, below the average production rate. “Perhaps the weakened condition of the birds from the previous winter had taken its toll. With the drought continuing in south Texas into the fall of 2009, wildlife officials are leery of what conditions for the flock will be like at Aransas in the 2009-2010 winter. Water holes were re-conditioned on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge to ensure the cranes will have fresh water to drink if the marshes remain above the threshold salinity of 23 parts per thousands when whooping cranes must find fresh water to drink.”

At the present time there are a total number of 536 known whooping cranes, 384 in the wild and 152 in captivity. “Young whooping cranes bred in captivity are being reintroduced in the wild in two flocks in the eastern U.S.” In the fall of 2001, eight whoopers were flown behind an ultralight aircraft between Wisconsin and Florida; “five of those survived the winter and started the migration back north on their own in April 2002. Additional birds were reintroduced in the next eight years, with 108 whooping cranes now migrating in the eastern U.S. However, the birds are struggling to hatch young with the adults abandoning their nests just prior to hatching the eggs due to swarms of black flies bothering the adults.” A second wild flock consists of 29 remaining non-migratory whoopers in central Florida. “That reintroduction effort has been abandoned as the cranes struggled with poor rates of reproduction and low survival mostly tied to re-occurring drought.”

The South Texas winter flock of whooping cranes is very special! Too often they are ignored and considered unimportant. But they are more than an ideal curiosity. They are a national treasure that we must appreciate and maintain. As Kathy wrote: “It will take increasing vigilance by man if this species is to survive and provide a thrill for your great-great-grand children to see, just as they provide enjoyment for Texans and thousands of visitors from around the world annually that visit Aransas NWR to see this magnificent species.”

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The eastern phoebe is an early winter resident
by Ro Wauer

Already some of our wintering birds are beginning to arrive in South Texas, and one of my favorites is the eastern phoebe. Almost every yard and field is claimed by one of these perky flycatchers. It spends it winter days capturing insects that it finds from low perches. One will suddenly dart out and snap up a passing fly or pounce on an insect on the ground or on a tree trunk or branch. Then it will return to a favorite perch, swallow its catch, jerk its tail, and wait for the next passing tidbit.

Eastern phoebes are one of our hardiest flycatchers; all the other members of this rather extensive family fly south for the winter, but this bird migrates only short distances, remaining just south of the really cold winter weather. It is able to survive the extreme cold conditions that we experience once or a few times each winter. At such times, it is actually able to feed on a non-insect diet, consuming seeds, fruit, and even an occasional small vertebrate. Its ability to change from insects to fruit to eat vertebrates attests to its amazing adaptability and physical characteristics, especially a bill wide enough to capture insects in flight yet strong enough to, capture, hold and swallow small vertebrates.

The eastern phoebe is resident throughout the eastern half of North America, nesting just north of our area, usually on structures such as porches, bridges, and cliffs. Nests are constructed primarily of mud and moss. One New England bridge site was utilized for thirty consecutive years. John James Audubon placed thin wires of the legs of one family, said to have been the first time birds were ever banded.

Its name comes from its rather distinctive “fee-bee” calls, that it may utter singly or many in an extremely very short time. It also has a clear and sweet chip note. These vocalizations can usually be heard all winter.

The phoebe, one of three in North America (including black and Say’s phoebes), is readily identified by its size (about 7 inches), brownish back, darker head, no wing bars or eye rings, whitish throat, and whitish to faint yellowish underparts. It also has the typical flycatcher habitat or jerking its tail when perched, but unlike most other flycatchers, this phoebe will sweep its tail widely, down and up and often toward the side, giving it a swaggering appearance.

The eastern phoebe is a marvelous wintertime neighbor!

Friday, October 23, 2009

This is cross-posted from my personal blog milkriverblog about one of our own . . .

i am updating this to keep it current with new materials . . . Gary and Kathy Clark are arranging a memorial tribute in houston on october 29th . . . info is below . . .

Gary Clark, Dave Dauphin, Greg Lasley, Fred Collins, Mim Eisenberg, LeeAnn Sharp, The Montgomery County Courier, The Baytown Sun, The Houston Chronicle, Texas A&M Press and Houston Audubon Society posted these beautiful tributes to John on the TexBirds listserv, in comments, or on their own spaces . . .
i hope i'll be forgiven my collecting & reposting of them here (or please message me . . .)

i am continuing to collect remembrances and so this will continue to update at least through the memorial . . .

The original report from Gary Clark (and thanks to Kelly Bryan, dear friend of mine and the Tvetens, for alerting me to his ill health that morning)

I am sad to report that John Tveten passed away this afternoon of cancer. He died peacefully while surrounded by friends and family. Our love goes out to his wife, Gloria, and his son, Michael.

John was among the greatest of naturalists ever to trod the earth. His knowledge was encyclopedic, and his generosity in sharing that knowledge was without equal. Through his newspaper columns, his many books, and his informative and engaging presentations, we all learned an immeasurable amount about birds, butterflies, moths, wildflowers, and countless other wonders of the natural world. Moreover, we were always inspired by his endless curiosity and enthusiasm.

My wife, Kathy, and I are working with the family to arrange a celebration of John’s life and work and will give you details within a week or so about when and where that celebration will be.

Gary Clark
The Woodlands, Texas


The passing of John Tveten leaves all of us who knew him with a heavy heart.

John's books, field guides, newspaper articles, field trips and programs filled us with knowledge, the desire to see more, and the need savor nature slowly. John always used 35mm slides in his programs, and I don't think anyone else could go through as many slides during a given time period, as John could. Jan once told John that watching any of his programs was like sitting beside him on a comfortable couch while he read you a story and explained all the pictures in a book. Gloria was always by his side at every program, and John never forgot to mention that they were partners in every venture they took.

I met John in the late 60's when we both went to work for a major petrochemical research company. I stayed forever; John left shortly to fulfill his dream with a camera. John was an animal rehabilitator and a bird bander. Although we lived just a few miles from each other, we never netted each other's birds. John was an artist, also, and his drawings could rival anyone's.

He was one of the very few naturalists I have ever met. I will never forget when myself and three other young birders invited John on a Big Day run--worst mistake we could make. When we were always wanting to go for the next birding location, we always had to go find John and take him away from watching a praying mantis or watching a snake eating a frog.

John got Jan and I to appreciate all aspects of nature. I jokingly blamed him for exposing Jan to butterflies to such an extent that we moved all the way to the Valley so she could chase bugs.

John was a good friend, a kind man, a gentle man, a loving husband and father; I don't ever remember a frown on his face. Jan and I loved him, and will miss him. We send good thoughts and lots of prayers to Gloria, Michael, and Michael's family.

David Dauphin
Mission, Texas

I just must say a few words about John Tveten's passing. Dave Dauphin, Martin Hagne, Fred Collins, Gary Clark, and others have spoken eloquently of this man and my words cannot covey my own personal sense of loss. I met John at Bolivar Flats in the late 1970's. He and Gloria and I became friends and I'm proud to have called John a good friend for more than 30 years. We both shared a passion for birds, for nature in general , and for photography and I remember many discussions about our natural world with John. He enlightened others with his depth of knowledge of the natural world and was always ready to help with anything he was asked to do. John was a true gentleman in every sense of the word and I do not use that term casually. He was one of the finest persons it has been my privilege to know and I will miss him greatly. The writings about birds, butterflies, moths and other natural history subjects that John and Gloria produced over the years have enriched us all and leave a legacy for us to cherish. My thoughts and prayers are with Gloria and the family.

Greg Lasley
Austin, Texas

I am a native born and bred Texan, I have wandered the fields, bayous, bays and woods of southeast Texas for all of my sixty years. Early on I ask my father about the green lizards around the house and could not understand why he didn't know every aspect of their lives. I ask my grandfather what that white foam was on the dewberry vines in spring and he told me it was snake spit. I was just a kid, I knew I didn't know anything, but couldn't figure out why my talented and wise fathers did not know the answers to my questions about things all around them.

I didn't know it then, but I was already a naturalist. I have spent the rest of my life learning answers to these and other questions I conjure up each time I take a moment to notice nature whether at my back door or in the remote wilds of the Big Thicket, Galveston Bay, or far flung Big Bend. During my life I have learned much about nature, but there still seems to be more that I don't know, than I know. I met John Tveten in 1969 and as I came to know him as a friend during the next forty years I found John to be the person I could ask questions about any subject in nature and get a straight and full answer. If by occasion he would not know the answer, he would invariably put me on the right track to find the answer. When we resumed a conversation weeks or months later, he would often remind me of my question and was as interested as I in the answer. He never lost his passion for discovering any secret of nature.

I cannot see a moth (which I see daily) without anxiously wanting to know "When will the moth book be out, John?" John was incredibly generous with his time and knowledge. He was conversant in any topic of natural history or ecology. He was interested in everything. He loved all of nature. No plant or animal was too small, dull, or non-descript for John. He knew they all had a role to play, and without knowing the players, how can we know the play?

John and all of us were cheated out of the best years of a great naturalist's life. He gave us so much. So many books that are my constant companions. He wrote a nature column for 24 years. But his reflections of a life watching nature was still in his future. One of his last works was the final compilation of his columns; it is titled "Nature at Your Doorstep." That was John's life message, nature is at your doorstep if you will only open your senses and minds to observe and appreciate it.

That is a passion I share with John. I will miss him. Every naturalist in Texas will miss him.

Texas has lost one of its greatest treasures.

Fred Collins
Katy, Texas

I met John in 1980, when he led a Smithsonian Institution tour of Bryce, Zion and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. I had the good fortune to go on several other trips he led, and we became good friends. He was the one who inspired me to study natural history and become a photographer. My thoughts are with Gloria and Mike as they, like we, adjust to a world without him. He was a consummate teacher and changed the lives of thousands of people in whom his legacy will live on.

This is my tribute to John:

Mim Eisenberg

I heard the report Tuesday about the passing of a birder, naturalist, author, photographer, and great friend. John Tveten wrote a weekly column called "Nature Trails" for the Houston Chronicle for over 25 years. We worked together at Nature Quest for 10 years. I've known John & Gloria since the first Nature Quest in 1999. He came to my mother's place searching for butterflies that first year. And I had the pleasure of introducing him for many of his NQ Programs. We were blessed to have gone butterflying & birding with him many times.
We only saw John once a year during Nature Quest, but always felt very close to him & Gloria. I am honored that they took the time to come visit our Nature Center this year. I am so proud to have several of his signed books. When they came for Nature Quest, they stayed at the Yaklins cabins. I know the Yaklins, as well as many others in our area, will miss him. We will truly miss John, his warmth & gift of sharing with others. And our hearts go out to his wife, Gloria.

LeAnn Sharp
Utopia, Texas

In memory of John L. Tveten: enjoy your nature trails

Updated: 10.20.09

This article will be the hardest one to write in my 10-year tenure of writing articles for the Conroe/Montgomery County Courier.

A dear friend and wonderful naturalist, John Tveten, passed away on October 12, 2009, from a rapidly developing cancer. For all of us interested in nature, a void now exists that will never be filled.

I first met John in 1990. Met him at a now closed nature store called The Chickadee in Houston. Within minutes of meeting John I knew he was special. I just didn’t realize how special John was until years later.

A friendship and mentor-student relationship evolved over the years. It was very special. John was a very interesting, intelligent and well-rounded person. He was a walking encyclopedia regarding nature. He and his lovely wife, Gloria, authored numerous wonderful books about nature in Texas. Books about birds, butterflies, wildflowers, mammals, journeys to places near and far.

John was a great photographer and talented artist. John and Gloria wrote “Nature Trails,” a column about nature that ran weekly in the Houston Chronicle. For over 20 years their fascinating article ran. As a kid I used to quickly rifle through the local paper for three things. The sports page including the fishing report and the comics section. As an older kid (over 40) I couldn’t wait to read what John and Gloria wrote about in Nature Trails each week!

In addition to John’s wealth of knowledge and generous attitude of sharing nature with others of all ages, he loved football. We would talk football every fall and winter season. John played high school football. I bet he was just as tenacious on the playing field as he was stalking a once in a lifetime photo opportunity from a photography blind in the Valley of South Texas.

John and Gloria always were there when you needed them. For a book signing, presentation, to lead a nature walk and more. To be your friends. They were always there when asked. Something unfortunately rare these days. You could always count on John and Gloria Tveten.

To me, John was the older brother I never had. Not old enough to be my father, I often was caught in the middle thinking of John as somewhere between an older brother and “Dad.” John and I often laughed about this. I can still hear his precious laugh.

John is gone now. There will be no more presentations, field trips, books, book signings, nature festivals, photographs or drawings. We that share John’s love of the natural world have suffered an irreplaceable loss. Also, the wild creatures that John so often studied have lost a wonderful friend and advocate.

And selfishly speaking, I have lost the only brother I ever really had. My love goes out to John, Gloria and Michael, their son.

The Tveten family requests that in memory of John, donations be made to any organization that works towards protecting nature and all its natural wonders.

This was published in the Montgomery County Courier, written either by Gary or Kathy Clark, i am uncertain which as it was unsigned . . .

Tveten, famed nature photographer, dies
From staff reports, Baytown Sun, Published October 15, 2009

A longtime Baytown resident and former Exxon research chemist who turned a love for photography and nature into an illustrious second career died Monday.

Dr. John L. Tveten, 75, was originally from Minnesota but came to Baytown in the 1960s to take a job as with Exxon. After 13 years with the petrochemical giant, he left the company to attempt a career as a freelance outdoor and nature photographer.

That move led to a successful new career and lifestyle. Tveten became a noted author, along with wife Gloria penning a nature column for a Houston newspaper for 24 years and writing and photographing for innumerable magazine articles, eight books and field guides that shared his and Gloria’s knowledge and love of nature with others in the field and with the public. He became a noted authority in his field.

Tveten’s photographs were seen in the pages of Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine, National Wildlife magazine, Audubon, the children’s magazine of the National Wildlife Federation; Birder’s World, Bird Watcher’s Digest, the Encyclopedia Americana, Encyclopedia Britannica and many other publications.

Tveten presented uncountable slide shows and programs at numerous colleges and universities and to gatherings held by a variety of organizations, such as birding, gardening and social clubs and at hundreds of nature festivals. He led photo tours to many of America’s national parks in association with the Smithsonian, as well as other organizations.

Tveten will be cremated.

A Celebration of Life will be held at Armand Bayou Nature Center on Thursday, Oct. 29.

Tveten is survived by his wife Gloria, a son and daughter-in-law Michael and Lisa; granddaughter Amanda; and step-grandson Brett. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to Armand Bayou Nature Center or the conservation organization of choice.

Services are under the direction of Navarre Funeral Home.

John L. Tveten, longtime Chronicle columnist

By Kathy Huber, Houston Chronicle, Oct. 17, 2009, 9:06PM

John L. Tveten, a naturalist, author, photographer and longtime Houston Chronicle columnist, died of cancer Monday. He was 74.

For more than 30 years, Tveten wrote about and photographed creatures of nature and wildflowers. He wrote numerous books and co-authored five with his wife of 51 years, Gloria. The Baytown couple traveled widely in pursuit of nature and shared their adventures in Wildflowers of Houston and Southeast Texas and Butterflies of Houston and Southeast Texas, both published by University of Texas Press. He also wrote The Birds of Texas (Shearer Publishing, $24.95).

Nature Trails column
The couple's weekly Nature Trails column ran in the Chronicle for nearly 25 years. The last of a three-volume anthology of those columns, Nature at Your Doorstep (Texas A&M University Press, $24.95), was published last year. A frequent speaker and field guide, Tveten presented four programs with his wife at the Rockport hummingbird festival in September.

“John was among the greatest of naturalists,” said friend Gary Clark. “His knowledge was encyclopedic, and his generosity in sharing that knowledge was without equal. Through his newspaper columns, his many books and his informative and engaging presentations, we all learned an immeasurable amount about wonders of the natural world. Moreover, we were always inspired by his endless curiosity and enthusiasm.”

When the Tvetens decided to end their weekly column in 1999 for more book projects, Clark took over.

His Nature column appears in the Chronicle's Saturday Star section with photographs by his wife, Kathy Adams Clark.

“I would not be the nature photographer I am without John's advice,” Kathy Clark said. “His photographs taught me how to shoot, and he taught me how to be a naturalist.”

In their final column for the Chronicle, the Tvetens wrote that “the hobby that began as ‘birdwatching' is now called ‘birding' by most of its participants. Those birders are more skilled and more informed than ever before, and most will travel great distances to add new species to their lists.

“We share that enthusiasm, but we still consider ourselves birdwatchers. We enjoy seeing rare birds, but we also enjoy seeing common birds doing uncommon things. And then, we just enjoy seeing birds being birds uncommonly well.”
Originally a chemist

A Minnesota native, Tveten moved to Texas in 1960 after graduate school at the University of Illinois. He was a research organic chemist with Exxon before retiring in 1973 to become a full-time nature photographer and writer. In addition to his books and columns, his work appeared in national publications, calendars, film strips and educational material.

He also was a naturalist and tour leader for the Smithsonian Institution, National Audubon Society, Houston Museum of Natural Science and the Spring Branch Nature Center.

Tveten is survived by his wife; a son, Michael Tveten, of Tucson, Ariz.; and two grandchildren.

A memorial service will be at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 29 at Armand Bayou Nature Center, 8500 Bay Area Blvd., Pasadena.

Texas A&M University Press mourns the recent loss of John Tveten

avid naturalist, renowned photographer, freelance writer, and author of many books with his wife, Gloria

For nearly a quarter of a century, John and Gloria wrote a weekly column, called "Nature Trails," for the Houston Chronicle. Their writings, which ranged both in subject matter and geography, reflected a rewarding life of travel, study, and observation in nature, including many memorable encounters with birds.

Also, John's photographs have graced the pages of National Wildlife, Audubon, Ranger Rick, Birder's World, Bird Watcher's Digest, Texas Parks & Wildlife, and Texas Highways since 1973.

He's written and photographed eight books ─ many with Gloria ─ including his nature trails books, Adventures Afar (2006), Our Life with Birds (2004), and Nature at Your Doorstep (2008) with Texas A&M Press.

Shannon Davies, Louise Lindsey Merrick Editor for the Natural Environment for Texas A&M Press, worked closely with John for many years.

"The first time I walked through a vacant lot with John, he taught me that there is no such thing. Perhaps the last of Texas's great naturalists, he taught all of us about plants, birds, mammals, snakes, lizards, frogs, butterflies, moths, and insects of all kinds with unmatched facility and generosity. He was a generalist in the truest, best possible meaning of the word--he loved nature wherever he found it, and he found it everywhere. A writer, an artist, and a photographer, John knew so much, and gave so much, never losing his sense of wonder and of fun."

". . . Each person who met him will remember John's perfect presentations and exquisite photos. All of us who called him friend will remember his
strong love of this planet and optimistic spirit. I cherish every moment I spent with him and will always remember him,"─Kathy Adams Clark, photographer, Enjoying Big Bend National Park: A Friendly Guide to Adventures for Everyone (2009)

". . . my words cannot convey my own personal sense of loss. . . We both shared a passion for birds, for nature in general , and for photography and I remember many discussions about our natural world with John. He enlightened others with his depth of knowledge of the natural world and was always ready to help with anything he was asked to do. John was a true gentleman in every sense of the word and I do not use that term casually. He was one of the finest persons it has been my privilege to know and I will miss him greatly. The writings about birds, butterflies, moths and other natural history subjects that John and Gloria produced over the years have enriched us all and leave a legacy for us to cherish. My thoughts and prayers are with Gloria and the family."─Greg Lasley, author of Greg Lasley's Texas Wildlife Portraits (2008)

Houston Audubon Society
Texas birders and conservationists say goodbye to long-time friend and naturalist, John Tveten, who passed away peacefully while surrounded by family and friends.

John was among the greatest of naturalists ever to trod the earth. His knowledge was encyclopedic, and his generosity in sharing that knowledge was without equal. Through his newspaper columns, his many books, and his informative and engaging presentations, we all learned an immeasurable amount about birds, butterflies, moths, wildflowers, and countless other wonders of the natural world. Moreover, we were always inspired by his endless curiosity and enthusiasm.

Kathy and Gary Clark have worked with the Tveten family to arrange a celebration of John’s life and work. The celebration will be held on October 29, 2009 at 6:30 p.m. at Armand Bayou Nature Center.

Our love and support goes out to John’s wife, Gloria, and son, Michael.

The Service

We hope you can attend a celebration of John’s extraordinary life on October 29 beginning at 6:30 p.m. at Armand Bayou Nature Center, 8500 Bay Area Blvd, Pasadena, TX. If you would like to bring cookies, snacks, or beverages, please do. We obviously do not want John’s family to provide refreshments. This will be an informal but important occasion for all of us to share our memories of John. Please inform anyone you know who may not be on Texbirds of the celebration.

Gary Clark
The Woodlands, TX

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

An Unusual Number of White Peacocks
by Ro Wauer

What an increase in butterfly numbers in recent weeks! After months of low butterfly numbers – for both species and individuals – populations have suddenly rebounded. At least in our garden at Mission Oaks, butterflies are commonplace. As many as two dozen species can now be found nectaring on the crucitas, mistflowers, and lantana blooms. And of all the butterflies utilizing our yard, the most surprising is the number of white peacocks. Fifteen to twenty of these semi-tropical species are present at any one time.

White peacocks are lovely creatures. They are slightly smaller in size than queens, usually land with out-stretched wings, and are easily identified because they are so different than any of the other butterflies. They are mostly white above and below, but fresh individuals possess orange to orange-brown margins, a large black spot on each forewing, and two smaller black spots on each slightly scalloped hindwing. Very fresh individuals may even have a bluish tinge.

Although a few white peacocks appear in the Golden Crescent every fall, I have never before found the numbers of individuals that are currently present. White peacocks are commonplace in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and individuals have been recorded throughout Texas. But this may be a banner year. Their larval foodplants include frog fruit, water hyssop, and green shrimp plant, all species that do occur in much of South Texas. Although my yard includes lots of frog fruits, it seems that the white peacocks in my garden are those that mostly are passer-bys, stopping for a short time or a few days to feed on the available nectar plants.

In previous years in the Golden Crescent numbers of white peacocks have been recorded only in a few select locations. The eastern portion of Saxet Lake Recreation Area, an area with an abundance of frog fruit, has been one choice site. I have assumed that that one location has supported what might be considered a “temporary colony,” an out-of-range breeding population likely to persist for a few to several years only. Such a colony can occur when a gravid female happens by and, finding adequate foodplants, lays eggs that then lead to a viable population. That population may persist until it is lost due to freezing, drought, or other natural causes. This scenario is not too unusual for butterflies, and it may help to explain the gradual shift of some southern species northward.

I suppose that one reason for my surprise at the number of white peacocks in my yard this year is because of the recent drought throughout most of its range in Texas. All during the period of drought the butterfly numbers have been extremely low. Their essential foodplants had been severely limited to inadequate moisture. But now, after several weeks of normal rainfall the vegetation has responded and the butterfly numbers have also increased. All the butterflies, especially white peacocks, one of our favorites, are more than welcome.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Fall is Mistflower Time
by Ro Wauer

Our crucitas are starting to flower, Wright’s bonesets are budding, and Gregg’s mistflowers have been blooming for the last several weeks. All of these Eupatorium species (or Conoclinium, according to some botanists) are some of the best butterfly magnets in all of Texas. All can be lumped into one to three common names: mistflowers, bonesets or thoroughworts. They all are much-branched and non-twining with a woody base and with opposite, toothed leaves that are deltoid or triangular or ovate in shape. The compact clusters of flowers vary from blue-violet to purplish-blue to lilac to whitish in color.

Almost two dozen species of Eupatorium are known in Texas, but I have found that the truly butterfly-friendly species are limited. The best of these is the crucita, scientifically known as Eupatorium odoratum. Although it is native in Texas only from Deep South Texas, where it grows on the coastal plain and Rio Grande floodplain, transplanted plants do very well throughout the Golden Crescent and even north to Austin and Houston. Crucitas are extremely hardy and can take over an area if not trimmed back. But when this plant is in bloom, from early October until December, no other flowers can compete in attracting butterflies. And the flowers possess a pleasant fragrance.

Another favorite is Gregg’s mistflower or Eupatorium greggii, sometimes called palm-leaf eupatorium. This shorter, bluish flowering plant occurs from the Trans-Pecos to the Hill Country to South Texas. Those that I have planted in my yard are currently in bloom and until crucitas come into full bloom are the most popular of all my butterfly plants. Queen butterflies in particular seem to prefer the nectar of Gregg’s mistflowers.

Over the years I have also introduced two additional Eupatoriums to our yard:
blue and Wright’s bonesets. Blue boneset, scientifically known as Eupatorium azureum, produces a blue-lavender flower. And unlike our other yard Eupatoriums, this species flowers in spring, from February to May. As one of the springtime bloomers, along with agaritos and a few citrus trees, it is utilized by Henry’s elfins, gray hairstreaks, red admirals and white-striped longtails.

Wright’s bonesets, Eupatorium wrightii, produces whitish flowers. This shrub is another of the fall butterfly magnets in our yard. It flowers only from October to early December. Although its importance for butterflies can hardly be compared with that of the crucitas, it also does a good job in attracting butterflies. This species is another Eupatorium that occurs natively in the United States only in South Texas from the Trans-Pecos through the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Where can these shrubs be purchased? I believe that some of the larger area nurseries are carrying crucitas and Gregg’s bonesets, but I have not found blue or Wright’s bonesets in our nurseries. We purchased our plants in the Valley, in Weslaco at the Valley Nature Center. They sell an amazing variety of South Texas natives. And it also can be a good location to see a variety of Valley butterflies. Good luck!

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Birds are Creeping Northward
by Ro Wauer

During the last ten to twenty years we have seen increasing numbers of tropical bird species in the Golden Crescent. Species such as green jays, buff-bellied hummingbirds, green and ringed kingfishers, golden-fronted woodpeckers, white-tipped doves, great kiskadees, Couch’s kingbirds, cave swallows, and bronzed cowbirds have all been found on a regular basis. Most of these were considered only Mexican or at least Lower Rio Grande Valley birds until recent years. I remember visiting the Valley in the late 1960s to see many of these because they were not known any elsewhere in the United States. My first ever buff-bellied hummingbird was found at the home of a Valley fruit-grower. It could be expected nowhere else in the U.S.; now it is a full-time resident in the oaks growing around my home in Mission Oaks.

This northward movement of the breeding grounds of many birds is well documented, although this shift also is likely for many other groups of wildlife. Butterflies also are experiencing the same kind of movement, but their northward shift is far less understood than it is for birds. Although individual species of southern butterflies have been recorded in our area in recent years, proving population shifts is more difficult because they are subject to accidental dispersions from various weather patterns.

In a recent article in the newsletter of the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, author John Rappole states that “at least 80 species of birds native to tropical, subtropical, or warm desert habitats have shown evidence of northward or eastward extension of the breeding distribution into, within, or beyond the borders of South Texas. These changes range from a few to several hundred kilometers and occurred over a relatively brief time period (decades)!” Rappole continues: “These changes are in line with regional climatic warming and possible drying…If predictions are correct, over the next century climate change will have an ecological effect roughly similar to moving the region 100 miles to the southwest.”

From an optimists’ point of view, assuming that the northward movement continues, the Golden Crescent could possible add a substantial number of bird species to our list of full-time residents. What are some of the species that we might expect in the near future? How about some parrots? A couple kinds of parrots have already resided in the Golden Crescent – probably escapees - but were unable to maintain a viable population for more than a few years. And Harris’ hawks; groove-billed anis; ferruginous pygmy-owls; lesser nighthawks; beardless flycatchers; verdins; black-crested titmice; black-tailed gnatcatchers; tropical parulas; long-billed thrashers; black-throated, Botteri’s and olive sparrows; hooded and Aububon’s orioles; and lesser goldfinches already occur in nearby counties to the south and/or southwest. It would not surprise me at all to find these birds nesting in the Golden Crescent; some already may.

The obvious follow-up question might be: with the climatic changes in our area that are likely to increase our list of breeding birds, what species that are currently nesting here might we loose? Probably not many or none at all. The waterbirds, including waterfowl, waders and shorebirds, should remain the same. We do need to worry about the changes in the blue crab populations along the coast; it is possible that we could loose the already endangered whooping cranes. And maybe our small population of Mississippi kites that currently are at the southern edge of their range might decline. This also may be the case for red-bellied woodpeckers, Swainson’s warblers, orchard orioles and a few other species.

Mother Nature is one fickle lady!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

It is Cricket Time Once Again
by Ro Wauer

Field crickets are once again invading our towns, homesites and businesses. Everywhere you look are black field crickets, scurrying here and there trying to find hiding places. Normally these crickets are found only in our fields and woodlots and are primarily nocturnal in character. The recent rains, however, have driven them out of their preferred habitats into conflict with people. Millions are zapped with insecticides, but they will keep coming until the weather changes. Then those that remain will go about their business as usual.

Field crickets often are welcome neighbors, so long as they stay outdoors. Many people consider crickets symbols of good luck. Jiminy Cricket, of Pinocchio fame, also helped establish their positive image. And crickets are prized for their singing and sometimes even kept in cages in people’s homes. In China, crickets were also kept for their fighting ability; cricket fights were as popular as horse races. The Chinese actually fed their crickets special diets, including mosquitoes fed on trainer’s arms, and weighed them in order to classify them for fighting.

Many of us enjoy their cheerful songs, and as the nights grow longer and cooler, their nocturnal serenades increase in intensity. Before winter they must mate to perpetuate their species. But only the males sing. They have three basic sound signals: a calling note, an aggressive chirp, and a courtship song to attract a female. Singing is done with the edge of one wing rubbing against the opposite wing, creating a chirping noise. Filelike ridges, called “scrapers,” near the base of the wing produce the sound. We can produce a similar sound by running a file along the edge of a tin can.

Wing covers provide an excellent sounding board, quivering when notes are made and setting the surrounding air to vibrating, thus giving rise to sound waves that can be heard for a considerable distance. The cricket’s auditory organ or “ear,” a small white, disklike spot, is located on the tibia of each front leg. The chirps become much higher in pitch in the presence of a female. Some of these ultrasonic sounds can reach 17,000 vibrations per second, higher than most people can distinguish. Females are easily identified by a long, spearlike ovipositor (egg-laying device) protruding from their abdomen. Eggs are laid in the ground and hatch in the spring.

Our local field crickets, almost an inch in length, are members of the Gryllidae family of insects, closely related to grasshoppers and mantises. They feed on a wide variety of materials, including vegetable matter, and when they get into our buildings they can consume everything from clothing to books. However, they will not remain there and breed but will return to their preferred outdoor environment when given a chance. Outdoors they are an integral part of our South Texas wildlife.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Hummingbirds, Anyone?
by Ro Wauer

Once again it is that time of year when we can expect millions of hummingbirds to pass through South Texas on their way to their wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America. The most abundant of these is the ruby-throated hummingbird, a species that nests all across the eastern half of North America, including the Golden Crescent. In fall the southbound hummers will often stop to feed at our feeders. These high octane birds need a constant food supply, especially this dry year when the natural sources from flowering plants are at an all time low.

For the last 20 years the Rockport-Fulton area of South Texas has become the best known place in all of North America to enjoy the special treat of the fall hummingbird migration. This year marks the 21st Annual “Hummer/Bird Celebration,” scheduled from September 17 to 20. Although the ruby-throated hummingbird is the star of the show, other probable species seen during this four-day period include the black-chin, rufous, and buff-bellied hummers. Participants can take two-hour bus tours to area homes with lots of feeders. Or participants can take a self-guided hummer trip to various homes on their own.

The Hummer/Bird Celebration will offer a wide assortment of activities this year. Beside the scheduled home visits, participants can attend hummingbird banding demonstrations. Birders also can take morning trips to Hazel Bazemore County Park on Friday, the Fennessey Ranch on Saturday, and Tule Lake and Indian Point on Saturday. Also this year, butterfly programs and field trips will be provided by Ro and Betty Wauer on Friday and Sunday mornings and by David and Jan Dauphin on Saturday morning. Other scheduled talks will include several on hummingbirds, and others on hawk migration, Texas warblers, moths, water in the landscape, and gardening.

Another reason to attend this year’s Hummer/Bird Celebration is to wander through the Rockport High School auditorium where more than 80 vendors offer everything from books to art to binoculars to clothing. Over the years Betty and I, even when we have not been personally involved with the celebration, visit Rockport to spent a few hours among the vendors. It provides a super opportunity to purchase various goodies, including Christmas presents. And just outside the auditorium one can also purchase garden plants that attract hummingbirds and butterflies.

How to get involved? Although anyone can wander among the vendors at no charge, attendance to the talks and field trips can be arranged on site or on the internet at It also is possible to obtain information about the Celebration by calling the Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce at 361-729-6445. We have found that the Hummer/Bird Celebration is one of the best organized and best attending festivals we know.

If you go, be sure to stop and say hello.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

A Morning Walk Through the Neighborhood
by Ro Wauer

We sometimes walk early before the sun really heats up the neighborhood. Early morning is a marvelous time of day, when the yard birds are in full song and a few larger birds are passing overhead. Although early fall is not the best time of the year to experience birds at their territorial peak, far from it, but early morning is the best time of day to hear what probably are the last of the territorial songs. The oak woodland habitat where we live contains a number of resident birds that are through nesting. But some are still in song, at least during the early hours: cardinals, Carolina wrens, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, white-eyed vireos, and mourning and Inca doves.

Some of these resident species may nest again, depending on weather conditions. And some of those may not have nested yet this year due to the extreme drought. Many birds simply postpone nesting until conditions are appropriate so that they can find adequate food for their young.

A few early fall migrants are already passing through the neighborhood. Upland sandpipers and golden plovers from the far north and dickcissels have been heard overhead. And a few orchard orioles, several blue-gray gnatcatchers, a summer tanager, a female indigo bunting, and a couple warbler species have been seen in the yard. Black-and-white warblers are most numerous so far, walking up and down the tree trunks, searching for whatever insects and other invertebrate foods they can find. And a lone Louisiana waterthrush spent a few minutes at one of our birdbaths, chipping loudly and bobbing on its two long legs.

The hummingbird population has already increased considerable during the last couple weeks. It has gone from a half-dozen individuals to several dozen. I put out two more feeders to accommodate these little gems, and now I am refilling the feeders every other day. I know that within a week or two I will be refilling feeders at least daily. Although I am limiting my feeders to seven this year, four or five years ago, when I had hung 17 feeders, and was refilling each twice daily, I had an unbelievably large number of hummers. On one occasion I estimated that my yard contained 300 or more individuals. The hummers buzzed around each feeder, fighting for a chance to feed, and the trees were filled with a constant roar of hummer wings. The Hummer/Bird Celebration in Rockport is coming up September 17 to 20, but more about this marvelous festival in next week’s nature note.

I am unsure what to expect about the fall bird migration this year. Southbound birds are significantly affected by weather. And our extremely dry conditions this year may suggest that the bulk of our migrants will pass around us. More than the normal numbers may take a route across the Gulf. Others may pass us to the west where there has been a more normal rainfall pattern. Most migrants depend upon a daily supply of insects to provide them with adequate nutrients. The drought conditions we are experiencing in the Golden Crescent have severely limited that necessary food supply.

But nevertheless the few migrants that do enter the Golden Crescent will be most appreciated. Some of my favorite fall migrants include the gray catbird, brown thrasher, yellow-throated vireo, and golden-winged, chestnut-sided, and black-throated green warblers. Enjoy whichever migrants that visit your yards.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Spiders, Up-close and Personal
by Ro Wauer

Spiders have always been fascinating creatures to me! A bit alien, a little scary, but always fascinating. So a recent experience of watching a jumping spider stalk a skipper butterfly truly got my attention. I was first attracted to the skipper that turned out to be a Carus skipper, a new county record, as it feed on gold lantana. Half way through photographing the skipper, I realized that it was being stalked by a jumping spider, a potent predator of butterflies. My attention then shifted to the spider and I watched it edge ever closer to its prey. But apparently I didn’t give the skipper enough credit, because it suddenly flew away to another part of the lantana, and the spider retreated from view.

Jumping spiders are commonplace in Texas. I find them in all sorts of places from flowers and shrubs to various human-made structures, including the deck of my house. They can be tiny, less than a quarter of an inch, to those that reach almost an inch in length. All are rather squat with a head containing mouthparts and eight eyes, a thorax, a thin waist, and an abdomen with eight long hairy legs. All spiders are predators that feed on a huge variety of insects, especially flies and other invertebrates, including other spiders.

Although most spiders are nocturnal in behavior, jumping spiders are daytime hunters. They capture their prey by a stalking and jumping attack; some species can jump twenty times their own length. When sufficiently close, the spider lowers its body, fastens a dragline to the surface, and then leaps onto its prey. A jumping spider detects prey with any of its eight eyes, but it will then zero in with its larger central pair of eyes that are based on long tubes that work like miniature telephoto systems.

Most of the 4500 species of jumping spiders live in the tropics, but North America also has its share. Of the more than 35,000 species of spiders of 105 families, the jumping spider family is the largest. But the cobweb weavers may be more obvious. And the crab spiders may be more noticeable to those of us interested in butterflies. Crab spiders hide among the flowers and grab many an unsuspected butterfly. Although most crab spiders are only about an inch in length, they capture surprisingly large insects, including monarch butterflies.

All North American spiders are venomous, although very few possess venom that can seriously harm humans. The black widow accounts for 50 percent of all recorded spider bites. Black widow and recluse spider venom is neurotoxic, affecting the nervous system, but other spider venom is cytotoxic causing damage primarily to the tissues. Spider venom has been studied for their values of dispersal of blood clots that cause heart attacks and also for use in developing safer kinds of insecticides.

When spider specialist John Comstock of Cornell University was asked “What good are spiders:” he replied “They are damned interesting!” And Paul Hillyard, in “The Book of Spiders,” wrote: “One can find spiders that catch their prey with a sticky globule on the end of a silk line. There are spider architects that construct impressive webs overnight and then take them down again in the morning. One can find caring, responsible spiders that build nursery webs for their families while others carry the whole brood of their back. There are spider engineers, which tunnel into the ground and make secret passages for escape in case of intruders. There is even a unique spider “frogman” which takes down an air supply to breathe underwater. Many species preserve and store food for a rainy day when no flies are about, but some crafty little types have turned to a life of crime and do nothing more than steal food from the webs of their bigger brethren. Still, there is actually one that knocks at the door of another spider’s home and waits for an answer before entering.” But my favorite is the jumping spiders.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Fall Bird Migration is Well Underway
by Ro Wauer

Fall in South Texas is an exciting time of year! For birders and other nature lovers who spend time in the outdoors, it is next to impossible not to notice our south bound migrants. They include birds of every color and shape, many of which we might have seen on their way north in spring. It only makes sense to be filled with wonder. And many folks ask about bird migration. Here are answers to a few of the more common questions.

Where are the migrants going? Most of our passing birds are Neotropical migrants, species that spend their winters in the Tropics, from central Mexico to South America, and nest in North America, from Texas to Alaska. Some Arctic shorebirds that winter in southern South America and nest in northern Alaska travel a round-trip distance of well over 13,000 miles.
Most of the springtime songbirds passing through South Texas are Trans-Gulf migrants that leave Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in early evening and arrive along the Texas Gulf Coast the following day (depending upon weather conditions), a distance of about 550 miles. A smaller number of those same songbirds also take a Trans-Gulf route in fall. Songbirds are able to fly nonstop for eighty to ninety hours.

Do all birds migrate at night? Most do, but many others, such as hummingbirds that feed on nectar and swallows and flycatchers that are insect-eaters feed in flight, usually migrate during the daylight hours. We see many of these birds flying south over the fields and woodlands during the months of August, September and October.

How fast do birds fly? Most long-distance migrants travel between 25 and 40 mph. Flight speeds vary with their activity. For instance, purple martins fly at 27 mph, shorebirds fly between 45 and 55 mph, hummingbirds may fly up to 55 mph, but peregrine falcons, our fastest known bird, can stoop at over 125 mph.

How high do birds fly? It varies with the topography, but 90 percent of all migrating birds fly between 5,000 feet above ground level. Many fly much lower so we are able to hear clips on a calm day or night. They tend to fly higher at night when flying over land.

Do birds migrate in mixed flocks? Mixed flocks of songbirds, ducks, and shorebirds are normal, but some other species, such as nighthawks and chimney swifts, usually stick with their own species. In fall, several raptor species can often be found within one area, but most hawks also stay with their own kind.

How do birds prepare themselves for migration? Most accumulate great quantities of fat as fuel for their long-distance flights. Many double their weight. The tiny ruby-throated hummingbird, weighing 4.5 grams, uses 2 grams of fat to fly nonstop for twenty-six hours. A typical bird will lose almost one percent of its body weight per hour while migrating.

What is a bird’s signal to migrate? Although the answer is complicated, a simple answer is the increasing or decreasing hours of daylight in spring and/or fall. Arctic birds can raise a family in only a few short weeks, due to the long daylight hours, and often are some of the earliest fall migrants found in South Texas. Most of the earliest fall arrivals are males, while the females remain on their nesting grounds a bit longer to care for the nestlings.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Spotted Sandpipers, An Example of Avian Polyandry
by Ro Wauer

A recent visit to Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California reminded me how different breeding spotted sandpipers appear from when they are over wintering in South Texas. They are a Jeckel and Hyde bird that sports a spotted breast on their breeding grounds but possess an immaculate white breast in winter. But what is most amazing about these little sandpipers is that they are one of nature’s most fascinating experiments. They are one of the few bird species in which the female is dominant. She will entice two or more males into her harem to incubate the eggs and care for the youngsters. She arrives on the breeding grounds first and selects and defends her territory and her mates. This example of avian polyandry is an apparent success story because spotted sandpipers are among our most widespread and abundant shorebirds.

Betty and I discovered a very defensive female near Manzanita Lake at Lassen. She flew about the little stream where we were searching for butterflies, perched on an adjacent tree, and constantly scolded us with shrill “peet-weep” calls. Then she would fly off again, flying stiff-winged in a sporadic flight-and-glide manner to the next landing spot. We did not search for a nest, but moved away so as not to disturb her or her mates who we assumed were sitting tight on a nest. She continued her frantic calls for a long time as we moved further away.

Spotted sandpipers are often finished with their nesting chores by late July, and some of the earliest birds can arrive on their winter homes soon afterwards. They normally utilize lake shores and streams where they wander about searching for insects and various other invertebrates such as worms, crustaceans and mollusks. But they may even catch small fish and on occasion feed on carrion. But whether they are on their nesting or winter grounds they are easily identified by their small size (smaller than a killdeer), long yellowish legs, yellowish bill, and unusual behavior of constant teetering.

The spotted sandpiper is the most widespread sandpiper in North America with a breeding range that extends throughout North America from coast to coast and from the extreme north Texas to Alaska. Because of its odd nesting behavior it can be characterized as a “pioneering species.” It “quickly and frequently colonizes new sites, emigrates in response to reproductive failure, breeds at an early age, and lives a relatively short time (breeding females live an average of only 3.7 years), lays many eggs per female per year, and has relatively low nest success,” according to “The Birder’s Handbook.”

“The maximum clutch size is four eggs, each of which weighs about 20 percent of the adult female’s body weight. Apparently, it is physiologically impossible for a female to increase the clutch size beyond four, but during the six-to-seven-week breeding season she can lay up to five complete clutches of four eggs each. Each clutch requires about three weeks of incubation, so a female would be hard-pressed to hatch and raise even two broods. Multiple males enable a female to increase her reproduction output by freeing her from the responsibility for incubation and care of the young.” Her free time at Lassen allowed her to properly chastise us for invading her territory.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Importance of Handouts
by Ro Wauer

Drought conditions significantly increase the importance of handouts and water for the wildlife that utilize our yards. Our yard in Mission Oaks has become a feeding and watering area for more wildlife than usual during the last few weeks. The birdseed in our feeders had been disappearing much quicker than usual, although the number of birds that were utilizing the feeders had not changed all that much. But then it all became clear when we discovered a white-tailed deer also taking advantage of the birdseed handouts, stretching for seed in the rather small feeders. This individual doe is probably the same mamma deer that had left her fawn in our yard a few weeks ago. But now she leaves her fawn hidden in a brushy area along the edge of the yard, not encouraging it to also take birdseed. We did get a distant sighting of the fawn a couple days ago, so we know it is still about. We wonder if it will join its mother at the feeders before long.

Another wild animal taking advantage of our bird feeders of late, besides the regular birds and squirrels, is a cottontail. This individual will sit underneath the feeders and feed on the various seeds that have been brushed off the feeders by the birds. It seems very content to take leftovers. Yet it also will eat grasses in other locations in the yard. Our cottontail seems to be a loner. We have not recently seen its mate that had been present a few weeks ago.

The birds currently utilizing the feeders include the ever present cardinals, chickadees, titmice, blue jays, as well as Inca, mourning, and white-winged doves. A male painted bunting has become a regular as well. During most summers the green female painted buntings will also take advantage of the birdseed handouts, but we haven’t seen the ladies yet this year. Maybe they are still nesting. But as dry as it is this year there is a good chance that they will not be able to produce young.

Drought conditions have also increased the use of our birdbaths. Water is always important for wildlife, but never as much as this summer. All of the mammals – the deer, squirrels, and cottontail - constantly drink from the birdbaths. And all the birds, not just those that utilize seed, spend an inordinate amount of time at the birdbaths. Mockingbirds, yellow-billed cuckoos, white-eyed vireos, eastern bluebirds, Carolina and house wrens, and blue-gray gnatcatchers also visit the birdbaths on occasion.

The two larger birds that seem to enjoy the birdbaths are the resident red-shouldered hawks and a barred owl. The hawks seem to think they own the yard, and they will settle down in one of the birdbaths for an extended stay; undoubtedly an extremely pleasurable experience on a hot day. But on a couple occasions in recent days, and for the first time in the years we have lived in our home, a barred owl has taken over the birdbath. It, too, like the hawk, will settle in to enjoy the cool bath. None of the smaller birds bother either the hawk or the owl during their afternoon baths. And their presence provides Betty and me a super opportunity to photographs these most welcome visitors.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

White Ibis is a long-legged water bird
by Ro Wauer

An adult white ibis is a very clean-cut, distinct bird, although young of the year are rather ratty looking. Adults possess all white plumage except for black wingtips and a bright red face and long curved bill, with a blackish tip, and long red legs. The adult plumage gives them a rather royal appearance. The plumage of young birds is mottled with brown, although they too possess a reddish bill and legs. It is not too unusual this time of year to see adults and youngsters together, feeding in shallow water along the coast or at inland wetlands, such as mudflats and flooded pastures, or flying about in family groups. They are one of our more social birds, feeding and roosting together, sometimes in rather large colonies.

Ibis are waders that glean their food with their long curved bill, either in water or on more solid ground. Their diet consists primarily of crabs, crayfish and snails, but they also will take fish and snakes and almost any small creatures, including insects, that they find. Feeding behavior is rather interesting. Kent Rylander, in his “Behavior of Texas Birds,” wrote that “they walk leisurely through the shallows, sweeping their long, decurved bills from side from side as they probe the bottom mud for crustaceans (especially crayfish), worms, and other animals.” He also states that “this ibis is a nonvisual, tactile forager: it places its partially opened bill in the water or bottom sediment, then snaps it shut when it partially detects prey. Prey taken from the water’s surface, mud, or short grass habitats are generally located by sight. White Ibises also steal food items from one another.”

Nesting birds often gather in huge, dense colonies with as many as a thousand or more nests. One colony on Galveston Islands contained 20,000 breeding pairs in 2001. Most nests are built with numerous sticks, lined with green leaves, in low shrubbery, but other nests may be placed higher on low trees around water areas. Nests may be usurped by their neighbors, and a colony can raise a great racket when squabbling among themselves. Young leave the nests in about three weeks and follow the adults to choice feeding sites.

White ibis are primarily found in Texas along the Gulf Coast, but they are casual visitors considerable distances inland. They even are considered accidental in the Trans-Pecos. In recent years, breeding birds have expanded their range further inland. Generally, white ibis in Texas can be expected only during the summer months, but they seem to be staying all winter long more and more often.

Three species of ibis occur in Texas: white, white-faced, and glossy. And the roseate spoonbill is closely related, all within the family Threskiornithidae. White and white-faced ibis are reasonably common in wetlands in the Golden Crescent, but glossy ibis, a bird that once was found only along the eastern Gulf Coast, is gradually increasing in numbers. And the roseate spoonbill is far more numerous along the coast, rather than venturing very far inland.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Courtship Feeding
by Ro Wauer

Cardinals and a few of my other yard birds are currently feeding one another. Much of that, of course, is an adult bird feeding one of its babies. Fledglings will follow their parents about for a considerable time, depending on how long the adults feel it is necessary. Some birds, like roadrunners, as soon as their youngsters can feed themselves, will lead their offspring away from their nesting territory and essentially loose them. Some humans need to do the same.

But there also is a lot of courtship feeding still underway. That is the behavior of one of the adults, usually the male, feeding his mate or his potential mate. In cases where the female takes the lead in courtship, such as with some sandpipers, the female will feed the male. This behavior is considered part of avian courtship, and it may start very early in the breeding season and may last for a few weeks after the last nestlings have fledged.

Early courtship feeding is a way for the dominant individual to attract a mate and develop a bond. This pair bonding, or the honeymoon period, may last for a considerable time, or at least until copulation occurs. Although courtship feeding is likely to continue, the individuals will also feed themselves. Ornithologists believe that courtship feeding not only forms a bond but also tends to maintain the health of the female and leads to greater nesting success. The number of eggs and clutch weight are partly determined by the female’s nutritional status. As Paul Ehrlich and colleagues wrote in “The Birder’s Handbook, feeding of the female “seems apparent that he is increasing his own reproductive success by keeping her fat and healthy.”

Males usually continue feeding the female through much of the nesting process or at least until the nestlings require both adults gathering food on a full time basis. Then the feeding behavior changes dramatically. As the nestlings grow and demand more and more food, feeding by the adults become all consuming. This is the time of year when more nutritional foods are necessary. For the majority of songbirds, such as cardinals, wrens and mockingbirds, insects and other small creatures become essential. Some studies suggest that songbirds must consume up to 80 percent of their weight on a daily basis. Adults with nestlings must therefore capture an amazing amount of food for themselves and young each and every day.

Once the young are fledged, in spite of the fact that they will continue to beg food from the parents, their diet begins to change from insects and other highly nutritional food to other things like seeds and fruit. Young cardinals for instance will very soon join their parents at seed feeders. And by late summer fruit usually becomes part of their daily diet. It is interesting that even some Neotropical flycatchers, species that nest in the United States and Canada where they specialize in insects, will switch to a diet dominated by fruit on their wintering grounds in the tropics.

The majority of songbirds that we find in our yards must feed constantly, especially when feeding young. During a normal day, however, most songbirds feed most heavily during the early morning hours, again during mid-morning, and then again in the late afternoon prior to going to roost for the night. Seed eaters that frequent seed feeders follow the same pattern, but they also are constantly on the lookout for insects and other more nutritious creatures. All birds are opportunists!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Our Mysterious White-tailed Visitor
by Ro Wauer

Betty saw it first, and she called me to the kitchen window from where we could see the tiny fawn that was lying in the shade of one of the backyard planters. It was almost impossible to believe that the mother white-tailed deer had left her fawn so very close to the house, about 40 feet from our kitchen window. We immediately grabbed our cameras and began to photograph our tiny visitor. At first it had its head turned away, tucked alongside its body, and the only sign of life was an occasional ear flick. Through binoculars we could see that it was dry; it apparently had been cared for by its mother.

About 30 minutes after our first discovery it raised its head and turned in our direction. More photos! It seemed to be gaining strength, moving about a little and even nibbling at its side. And in another 20 minutes or so it began to stand. It took another few minutes to stand fully upright; it looked like a little spotted body on amazingly long legs. It seemed to teeter a bit, and then take a few steps. It may have seen our movement inside the house because it slowly walked away around the side of the planter and out of sight.

We finally walked outside, trying to follow it and to position ourselves so that we could take some additional photos. We high hope that its mother would suddenly appear and guide it away from our yard and into the brushy area beyond. But instead, it walked only another 100 feet and again laid down in the shade of another planter box. It stayed there for another half-hour or so, even when I walked to within a few feet while watering. Eventually we again approached it to get some close-up photos. But that was more than it could put up with, for it suddenly jumped up and ran at full speed away and out of our yard toward the brushy area beyond.

The entire episode left us with numerous questions. Where was the mother during all of this? Why had she left her baby in our yard so near the house? And why had she not made some effort to return or coax it away?

We first found the fawn right after returning from our morning walk, at about 10am. Had we frightened the mother away when we left or returned to the house? We did not approach the fawn at all during the first period. We did watch to make sure some predator stayed away. The most likely predator would be a large dog that might wander into our backyard for a drink at one of the birdbaths. Yet we also understood that fawns do not have a scent to attract predators. And we understood that mother deer regularly leave their young in a safe place for considerable time. We wondered if she had a second fawn elsewhere, and was not concerned about the safety of our mysterious baby. Did she consider our yard safe?

I know that we will never fully understand what we experienced, but that is all part of Mother Nature’s mystic. We only wish the best for our little fawn. We hope that it found its mother and that she was able to feed and care for it, and that she will nurse it to a healthy youngster. Maybe we will see it again when it returns to enjoy one of our birdbaths.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Robber Flies Are Deadly Predators
by Ro Wauer

It’s been said that robber fly predation on other insects can be compared with peregrine falcon predation on birds. Both are dramatic predators that take a significant number of prey. Although dragonflies also take numerous insect prey, including other dragonflies, from what I have observed in recent weeks, robber flies are far more successful in catching prey. And a close-up look at one of our many robber flies is rather scary. I am surprised that one of the horror movies, so common today, has not been developed around a monster robber fly.

Although robber flies can vary considerably in size (some tropical species can be more than a foot in length) and bodies, they all possess extremely long spiny legs, bearded face, piercing mouthparts, large eyes, hollowed out area between the eyes, and a bristly humped thorax. Some are stout like bees while others are long and narrow with a very long abdomen. And the various species, of which there are about 1000 in North America, utilize a wide range of habitats, from our yards to the beach to desert scrub and even grasslands. They can be found perched on the ground, on branches and leaves, or on various structures.

Robber flies will eat almost any flying creatures they can catch. Some of their prey can be considerable larger than they are, and one’s daily diet may include everything from bees and wasps to grasshoppers, butterflies, beetles, and other flies. Most hunt from perches where they wait for passing prey, and some species actually establish a flight territory that they defend from other robber flies. They possess a mobile head that can move about in various directions. When seeing a passing prey, they will immediately give chase and catch it in mid-air. They may even fly ahead and intercept the prey from an angle. They will then fly to a shady perch, holding the prey in their long spiny legs, and consume their catch by sucking their prey dry with hypodermic-like mouthparts.

The robber fly life cycle is rather ordinary. The females lay eggs on or just beneath the soil surface. Upon hatching the larvae (tiny, slightly flattened worms) crawl about in the soil and feed on tiny arthropods. Some species may remain in the larval stage for a full year, but most at least stay as larvae through the winter months. By spring, the larvae feed on decaying vegetable matter and the larvae of other insects. And by late spring or summer they pupate and wriggle to the surface where the adults emerge.

Robber flies are members of the Order Diptera or flies, a huge group of insects that includes everything from mosquitoes, wasps and bees, to house flies. What separates robber flies from most of the other flies is their aggressing predatory behavior. During some periods of the year they seem to be especially common, and I have often wondered if their numbers actually control populations of some other flying species. During a recent visit to the Lower Rio Grande Valley, I found several robber flies that had captured butterflies. Although they often are difficult to photograph when perched, they seem to allow a much closer approach when feeding on prey. I realize that robber flies have every right to coexist with all the other native insects, but I must admit that I am bothered when I find one with a butterfly firmly gasped in its long spiny legs.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

How Do Our Drought Conditions Affect Our Wildlife?
by Ro Wauer

Many of our wild animals have a very difficult time during drought conditions. Most are depended on available waterholes and/or birdbaths. Exceptions include a few lizards and small rodents. For those of us that provide plenty available water in our own yards, we cannot help notice the increased use of those artificial waterholes. But for wildlife species without access to such water, they may take one of several actions. Those species that are extremely mobile, such as some birds, they move out of the area altogether. Some other species may be able to move short distances to where they can find water. Our many rivers in Central Texas may act as sponges for those that are able to get that far.

Drought conditions can and often does lead to the death of some wildlife species. When water is not available, wildlife often goes into a sort of depression. Birds may react by being less aggressive on their territories, they may sing only part of the normal time, and they become less active in general. Those that do manage to nest often produce less than a normal clutch, and the fledglings, too, may be less healthy. Birds often are able to do pretty well during the nesting season if they are able to find adequate food to feeding the nestlings. The majority of their diet that time of year is insects that in turn are more often than not dependent upon vegetation. Severe drought conditions, of course, can greatly limit the available insects.

What about the mammals? They too must adapt to abnormal conditions. They may be less aggressive and spent the majority of their time finding food, oftentimes in locations where they might not utilize at other times. For instance, deer will spend more time grazing along roadsides where additional moisture from the roadways tends to support roadside grasses. And some of the mammals that normally are active only at night may need to spend more daylight hours in search for food. Drought conditions also produce other behavioral changes. Some species, such as some rodents, can go into a semi-hibernation mode.

Reptiles and amphibians also become less active in drought conditions. Many of these individuals seek shelter below ground and can aestivate for long periods of time. Like rodents, their metabolism can decline to a point that they are barely alive.

Butterflies are also greatly affected by arid condition. But unlike most mammals and birds, they are able to hibernate (known as diapause) and wait for a change in weather conditions. Although many butterfly species possess a life cycle of a year or less, they are able to diapause for several years. Some species diapause as larvae and can remain in that stage for five to seven years. And those individuals normally will require some significant change, such as heavy and constant rainy conditions, for them to move into the next stage in their life cycle.

Butterfly populations in South Texas are currently very low, when both species and numbers are far below normal. My garden, that will produce 25 to 35 species on a “normal” day in May, has recently only produced 10 to 20 species per day, and only a fraction of the normal numbers. And that number is as high as it is because of the constant watering of the many flowering plants that attract butterflies. Outside the watered garden, the fields and roadsides, even though recent sprinkles have finally produced an assortment of wildflowers, butterfly numbers have not adequately recovered. It will take considerable more moisture before butterfly populations return to normal.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Cottontails, Jackrabbits, and Hares
by Ro Wauer

A pair of cottontail was frolicking in my yard a few days ago. This was the first time we had seen cottontails in the yard for several months. Being at the lower end of the food chain for most of the predators that also frequent my yard, their presence was surprising but especially pleasing. When we first moved to our house in 1989, cottontails were commonplace. But within the last dozen years or so their numbers have seriously declined so that now it is a special treat when they do occur.

The cottontail that resides within the Golden Crescent area is the eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus). Its range extends throughout all of Texas and the eastern half of North America and southward through most of eastern Mexico. Three additional Sylvilagus cottontails/rabbits occur in Texas. The swamp rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus) is found in swampy areas along the Gulf Coast and northward into the pineywoods. The desert cottontail (Sylvilagus auduboni) is found in the western half of Texas and much of the West, from Canada into central Mexico. And the Davis Mountains cottontail (Sylvilagus robustus) is found only in the mountainous areas of West Texas, from Big Bend’s Chisos Mountains north to the Davis and Guadalupe Mountains. Five other Sylvilagus cottontails occur in the United States. The mountain cottontail is found in the Intermountain West, the brush rabbit occurs only along the West Coast, the marsh rabbit is found in Florida and along the Eastern Seaboard from Virginia south, the Appalachian cottontail occurs only within the Appalachians, and the New England cottontail in found only in New England.

The other group of rabbit-like mammals is the jackrabbits and hares, all of the genus Lepus. But only one of these – the black-tailed jackrabbit (Lepus californicus) – occurs in Texas. This long-eared, long-legged rabbit can occur throughout the state, but prefers hot, dry scrublands rather that oak dominated woodland areas. Three other jackrabbits can be found in North America: the white-tailed jackrabbit (Lepus townsendii) occurs through the northern portion of North America, the white-sided jackrabbit (Lepus callotis) is found only in extreme southwestern New Mexico, and the antelope jackrabbit (Lepus alleni) is found only in south-central Arizona and southward into Mexico.

North America also has three hares, also in the genus Lepus. The best know of these is the snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) of northern Canada and all of Alaska, the Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus) is found only in the far northern portions of North America, and the Alaskan hare (Lepus othus) is restricted to coastal Alaska. These three snow-adapted species are generally brown in summer and white in winter, and their ears are smaller than the jackrabbits.

There are about 80 species of lagomorphs (order of cottontails, jackrabbits and hares) throughout the world. Although these mammals may resemble rodents, they differ by their arrangement of their front (incisor) teeth, with a large tooth in front on each side and a small peglike tooth directly behind it. Lagomorphs are mainly diurnal and the food is almost entirely vegetable matter, such as grasses, forbs and bark, and none of the lagomorphs hibernate. They are a unique group of mammals. And the common lagomorph representative in the Golden Crescent is the eastern cottontail.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Dragonfly Days are Here Again
by Ro Wauer

Where in Texas is it possible to find 100 kinds of dragonflies? The answer is the Lower Rio Grande Valley, where dragonflies rate their very own festival. Like the many Texas festivals for birds and butterflies, dragonflies will be the subject of “Dragonfly Days,” scheduled May 21 to 24 this year. In fact, the 2009 festival marks the 10th year of this event, sponsored by the Valley Nature Center and Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco. Last year’s two-day festival produced more than two dozen species of dragonflies and damselflies, including most of the expected species such as common green darner, four-spotted and holloween pennants, great pondhawk, thornbush dancer, and roseate skimmer. The festival also produced a few truly unusual or rare species, including the first U.S. records of Mexican scarlet-tail and bow-tailed glider and blue-spotted comet. Participants were more than satisfied with the results.

Dragonfly Days is designed for the novice, those of us first learning how to identify these flying gems, as well as the expert enthusiast. Field trips and illustrated seminars are scheduled to help the beginner learn the differences between dragonflies and damselflies, know the difference between a skimmer and glider, and also to understand how these colorful insects play a vital role in maintaining a healthy environment.

Daily field trips are scheduled to several of the best dragonfly-finding locations in the Valley, including Bentsen-Rio Grande and Estero Llano Grande State Parks, Anzalduas County Park, and Edinburg Wetlands. The Lower Rio Grande Valley is recognized as one of the most biologically diverse regions in the nation. Field trip leaders will include dragonfly experts John Abbot, Bob Behrstock, Greg Lasley, Josh Rose, and Martin Reid. Seminars include “Dragonflies 101” by Behrstock, “Chasing dragonflies in South Africa” by Lasley, “Dragonfly prey: a look at what odonates eat and what eats them” by Martin Reid, “Natural superlatives along the Rio Grande” by Ro Wauer, “An odonates guide to the Lower Rio Grande Valley” by Josh Rose, and “Texas dragonflies, past, present and future” by John Abbot at the Saturday evening banquet.

Pre-registration is required for all seminars, field trips, and the banquet. Pre-registration forms are available on line at, and additional information can also be obtained from the Valley Nature Center (956-969-2475). Packets for pre-registered participants can be picked up at the host hotel: Holiday Inn Express (956-973-2222) in Weslaco. Special accommodation prices for participants are available when using the code: DFD. All seminars will be held at the hotel and field trips will also leave from that location.

Field trip participants will have the special opportunities to enjoy not only dragonflies and damselflies, but whatever other wildlife and plant life encountered. Birds, reptiles, butterflies, and plants can also be identified and discussed along the way. Participants are asked to bring binoculars (close-focusing for butterflies), study shoes, and protection from the sun. Daytime temperatures in May usually range into the low 90s F.

The festival will allow participants to visit a number of the special wetland sites in the Valley, to see a full range of dragonflies and damselflies, and also will help us appreciate the truly unique features of these marvelous creatures.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Gay Talese said of our conference, "I came to know an extraordinary gathering of writers, journalists, educators, students and readers devoted to the art and craft of literary nonfiction, a subject that has been my passion and my mission for a half century. I'm convinced that anyone who attends the Mayborn Conference will leave with a new level of insights, storytelling skills, and understanding of the aesthetic qualities and requirements of literary nonfiction. The Mayborn Conference is the gathering place in the country for serious nonfiction writers who want to deeply explore the craft and learn how its practiced at the highest levels. And that is why I'm encouraging every journalist and nonfiction writer I know to attend this summer's Mayborn Conference, and to submit their articles, essays and book-length manuscripts to the Conference Workshops."

UNT’s Mayborn Conference accepting entries for literary competition

Prizes include a book deal and $15,000 in cash.

DENTON (UNT), Texas – Since 2005, the University of North Texas’ Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference has awarded four book contracts to emerging authors. This summer could be your chance to get published.

The conference, which will feature NPR host Ira Glass and be held July 24–26 at the Hilton DFW Lakes Executive Conference Center in Grapevine, is accepting manuscripts, essays and articles for its literary competition. Additionally, the conference has teaming up with the Writer’s Garret, a prominent non-profit writing organization in Dallas, to help writers prepare their entries for the competition.

The conference and competition are sponsored by the Mayborn Graduate School of Journalism, which will become part of the university’s newly announced Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism when it opens on Sept. 1. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board granted formal creation of the Mayborn School earlier this month upon recommendation from the UNT System Board of Regents.

Selected entries will get the opportunity to work one-on-one with industry professionals in conference workshops, which will be held July 24 (Friday) before the official start of the conference. These entries also will compete for $15,000 in cash prizes and the chance to be published.

“This conference presents an enormous opportunity for unknown writers to get recognized and published,” said George Getschow, the conference’s writer-in-residence. “There are established writers who have tried unsuccessfully for years to be published. This is a rare opportunity.”

Two copies of each entry should be mailed to the Mayborn Graduate School of Journalism at 1155 Union Circle, #311460, Denton, TX 76203, attention George Getschow. Entries also must be submitted electronically to The deadline for submissions is June 1 (Monday).

Essays and articles should be no longer than 20 pages. A non-refundable entry fee applies. Twenty manuscripts and 50 essays will be selected for workshop participation. Contest winners will be selected from this group of 70 finalists. The winner of the manuscript competition will receive $3,000 and the option to enter a book publishing contract with the UNT Press. The top three entries in the categories of personal essays and mini-memoirs and reporting and research-based narratives that focus on people will receive $3,000, $2,000 and $1,000, respectively. The best articles and narratives and personal essays will be included in the 2010 edition of Ten Spurs, the conference’s literary journal. For more entry information visit

To register for the conference, visit Conference fees are $295 for the general public. Student fees are $225. Educator fees are $270. Conference seating is limited. For more information, call 940-565-4564. The conference is open to the public with no requirement to submit competitive essays or a book manuscript proposal.

For more information about the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference Competition, contact Jo Ann Ballantine, conference manager, at 940-565-4778.